I had a classmate at an evangelical Christian college who repeatedly defined faith as “stepping out of airplanes, knowing that God will catch you.” My response was that surely God had better things to do than catch folks stupid enough to step out of airplanes. Matthew’s story of Jesus walking on the water with Peter can spawn bad theologies.
An emphasis on the decision character of faith has a long and deep history in the American psyche going back to our Puritan and evangelical ancestors. From Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney to Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and their successors, faith, as encountered in the idiom both of born-again revivalism and of religious “progressives,” has served as shorthand for “I have decided to follow Jesus.” But the biblical meaning of faith cannot be reduced to individualistic voluntarism.
Although the images of shepherd and sheep wind their way through these lectionary texts, they are difficult images for the contemporary church to embrace. I recall many of the adults in one congregation cringing during a children’s time a few years ago, when a well-intentioned volunteer tried to teach the children a song that had them “baa-ing” for Jesus. What are we teaching our children, some of us wondered: To follow the crowd without question? To have no mind of one’s own? To expect someone else to take care of us?